Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh). In an era of beyond visual range (BVR) and fire-and-forget missiles, the art of aerial combat -- dogfights in military parlance -- will forever be relevant, says an ace Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot who commands a squadron of the cutting edge technology Sukhoi Su-30MKI combat jets at this sprawling frontline airbase in north India.
“It’s been proved time and again that no matter what the technology at your command, the man in the machine is paramount. Thus, the art of aerial dogfights will forever be relevant,” says Wing Commander N N Sinha.
“A BVR missile can miss its target, resulting in the pilot trying again to hit the target. This means he has to fly closer to the target and this raises the immediate possibility of aerial combat with enemy aircraft,” he told IANS in an interview here.
In this context, he noted that even the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, currently the only operational fifth generation fighter in the world, retains its guns, as do other advanced jets like the Su-30MKI, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Boeing F/A-18 and the Lockheed Martin F-16.
“Guns take up space that could otherwise house missiles and other weapons. So why are they still there? Because the need for fighting your way out of a tricky situation could arise any time,” Wg Cdr Sinha explained.
The term dogfight first emerged during the First World War when rickety biplanes were used as mobile observation vehicles and pilots gave little thought to aerial combat and even waved at enemy pilots.
The more intrepid pilots then decided to go further by throwing grenades and even bricks at opposing aircraft. This progressed to pilots firing hand-held guns at enemy planes and once machine guns were mounted on aircraft, the era of air combat truly began.
The art has been refined over the years and reached its zenith during World War II and the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s. This prompted major air forces around the world to create specialized institutions to hone the skills of their fighter pilots in the art of aerial combat.
Thus, if the US has its Fighter Weapons School at Miramar in California -- better known by its sobriquet TOPGUN -- India has the less romantic sounding Tactical and Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) at the Gwalior Air Force base at Madhya Pradesh in central India.
And for once, these two premier air forces are almost matched -- when it comes to the frontline jets they hold on their inventories. In repeated war games over the past few years, the IAF Su-30MKIs have consistently held their own against the US F-16s and F-18s, leading the US Air Force (USAF) to grudgingly admit that they are worthy adversaries.
That’s not all.
At a joint war game at Gwalior in 2006, the Su-30 repeatedly triumphed over the Royal Air Force (RAF) Tornadoes, prompting the British to field their latest acquisition, the Typhoon at the England-end of the exercise earlier this year.
By all accounts, the honours were evenly matched -- and Wg Cdr Sinha is not surprised.
“With its thrust vector engines and canards, the Su-30MKI can perform unbelievably in the air as it possesses abilities that its competitors do not,” he observed.
The thrust vector engines enable the pilot to direct the aircraft into a 180 degree vertical climb, while the canards -- rotatable winglets just behind the cockpit -- permit the aircraft to adjust to the adverse wind flow which results from such a manoeuvre. This means that the aircraft can actually stand on its tail at great heights and then snap back into a 90-degree level to continue combat.
“This gives us tremendous advantage as in normal dogfights, aircraft weave and turn, but with the Su-30, a pilot can climb vertically and literally snap back like a cobra striking,” the IAF officer explained.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Wg Cdr Sinha’s is the first squadron of Su-30MKIs that have been made fully operational at Bareilly to increase the IAF’s strategic reach against China. Another squadron of the fighters will reach a similar status here within a year, while two more squadrons will be deployed at Tezpur in Assam to guard the eastern frontiers against China.
It may be recalled that Bareilly hosted the super secret half-a-dozen Mig 25 Foxbat aircraft of the Indian Air Force till last year, when they were phased out after a glorious 25-year service. The Mig 25s flew at three times the speed of sound at 80000 to 100000 feet, or just the edge of earth’s atmosphere.